Kirby Smart is very good at winning games, but that’s only part of his job. Georgia’s football coach also has a moral and ethical responsibility to protect the welfare of his players and the community. He’s supposed to ensure that his program is a positive representation of the state’s flagship university.
Smart is bad at that part of his job. That’s judging by his standards, not mine.
“I’ve obviously done a poor job with this group of connecting and making sure they listen and understand things,” Smart said after six Bulldogs players were arrested from February-April 2019. “They have to learn as young men that you can’t break the rules, you can’t break the law. Obviously our guys have not done a good job of that, and that all falls on me. We’re going to do a great job of moving forward to get these guys in the right place to make the right decisions.”
Four years and two national championships later, some of Smart’s players still are in the wrong places making the wrong decisions. That means Smart still is doing a poor job of getting through to them. And now the consequences of his failures are much, much worse.
In 2019, Smart’s players were accused of fighting in bars, minor traffic violations and possession of marijuana. Those are illegal actions, but ultimately, not harmful. Now Smart’s players allegedly are involved in street racing, with one incident leading to the tragic death of two people.
UGA football staffer Chandler LeCroy and player Devin Willock died in a car crash Jan. 15 in Athens. Each new detail of that tragic event makes Smart’s program and Athens-Clarke County police look worse. It may not be over yet. There could be more revelations as police get around to properly investigating what they initially tried to pass off as a single-vehicle crash, despite evidence to the contrary.
It turns out that Bulldogs star Jalen Carter was at the scene of the fatal crash when it happened. Carter, 21, was charged Wednesday with street racing and reckless driving. Carter said he’s innocent of the charges and will be exonerated.
The AJC reported that surveillance cameras on the night of the accident showed Georgia linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson’s car leaving the area at the same time as vehicles driven by Carter and LeCroy. Dumas-Johnson, 21, was charged last week with street racing and reckless driving for an unrelated incident five days before the crash. Dumas-Johnson allegedly led police on a high-speed chase in Athens.
Smart hasn’t commented about the incidents beyond issuing a statement expressing concern. I’m less interested in what Smart says than what he does. Smart must figure out how to curtail the irresponsible behavior by the people in his charge. They are endangering themselves and the public.
The program’s problems are fueled by a volatile mix of youth, fast cars, entitlement and alcohol (police say LeCroy was drunk at the time of the crash). Smart needs to focus on fixing his program, not sending his fixer to help players out of legal jams. Smart’s goal should be saving lives, not avoiding negative headlines.
The latest incidents involving UGA football are part of an escalating pattern of vehicle-related transgressions by players.
Weeks after the Bulldogs won the 2021 national championship, linebacker Nolan Smith was charged with speeding 44 mph over the limit in a construction zone and arrested for driving with a suspended license. Smith played in the first nine games in 2022 before sustaining a season-ending injury. Javon Bullard missed a game last season following his arrest by UGA police on DUI charges. Bullard played in UGA’s 14 other games last season.
The charges against Carter and Dumas-Johnson are misdemeanors. But their alleged actions posed a serious threat to everyone who was near them on the roads at the time of their alleged actions. That’s especially true because they were driving high-horsepower machines.
Smart shouldn’t police which models of vehicles his players drive. He should be warning them against driving recklessly, but ultimately, Smart’s players make their own choices. UGA educates its athletes about the pitfalls of alcohol and drug abuse. It’s up to those players to use that information to make smarter decisions.
What Smart can do is create real consequences when those choices go badly. Players might resist the urge to drive like fools if they know they’ll miss multiple games if they get caught. Instead, Smart employs a staffer who serves as a liaison between the program and police.
If a Georgia football player isn’t arrested in the first place, then there can be no public scrutiny of how Smart handles the aftermath.
That’s how coaches like it. They are accustomed to having total control of their programs with little external examination. Now Smart has lost control of the narrative because two members of his program died in a crash and others are accused of racing vehicles in the streets. As Smart said in 2019, it’s on him to make sure his players understand they can’t break laws and rules.
I’m not saying that Smart should suspend players and staffers every time they get a traffic ticket. However, they should face significant consequences for driving infractions. Smart should send a clear message that if you want to keep your job, then slow down.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Smart employs a staffer to look out for the interests of players when they have contact with police. After all, cops are allowed to lie to citizens to get them to incriminate themselves. But if Smart’s players escape legal trouble, then his internal discipline had better be a true disincentive against reckless behavior rather than perfunctory punishment.
Georgia supporters should want that, too. They should be careful about losing their moral compass and sense of humanity as negative media coverage surrounds the football program. Right or wrong shouldn’t be a sliding scale that’s based on what’s happening with a rival’s program. Worse things happening elsewhere shouldn’t be an excuse for Georgia not to do better.
Smart is great at coaching the Bulldogs on the field. The result is back-to-back national championships. But the reckless behavior of people in Smart’s program since the Jan. 9 national title game reveal that Smart is bad at the other part of his job.
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